Partnership Vacuum Threatens Netplex Dominance

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Partnership Vacuum Threatens Netplex Dominance

By Patrick F. Valentine
Contributing Writer

Colleges and universities in the greater Washington area must improve their relationships with area technology companies or regional economic development will suffer.

This warning is based on some startling information. For example, revenue per employee is 59 percent higher for companies that "partner" with colleges and universities. That was the finding of Coopers & Lybrand LLP, which interviewed CEOs at 424 of the nation's fastest-growing companies about their relationship with higher education.

And did you know that our region is behind at least two of our competitors in the number and size of business and higher education partnerships? If this worries you, and it should, then please read on.

It is important to first explain what is meant by a "partnership." Business and higher education partnerships typically take the following forms: collaborative research, faculty consulting, work force training, shared equipment and facilities, and internships. Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the premier example of a university committed to business partnerships. The Cambridge, Mass., school has several programs specifically designed to help companies gain competitive advantage. These programs fall outside the traditional focus of higher education and yield important benefits.

What benefits? Companies leverage resources and increase profits by using outside experts to retrain existing staff, teach new ideas, develop products and get the inside track on hiring talented graduates. Colleges and universities benefit because participating faculty expand their knowledge and enhance their teaching skills. Students also benefit from valuable "real world" experience.

The Northern Virginia Roundtable's Higher Education Committee began studying business and higher education partnerships because of their importance to regional economic development. First, our region was compared with two competitors: Austin, Texas, and the Denver and Boulder, Colo., area. The study found that the greater Washington area is behind in number and dollars spent on partnerships. This "gap" is due, in part, to another gap between our institutions and the business community.

To find out more about this second gap, the roundtable and representatives from a dozen colleges and universities commissioned a survey of area technology companies. The findings show that area schools are not maximizing the potential for partnerships. Specifically, a whopping 50 percent of area technology companies have no relationship with an institution of higher education other than internships. Almost as staggering is that only 24 percent use higher education for work force training, 15 percent have cooperative research programs and a mere 11 percent use faculty as consultants. Finally, an alarming 30 percent of companies are unaware of available programs and 16 percent do not know whom to contact at area schools for information.

Either area colleges and universities are not committed to building partnerships with our growing technology companies or schools are doing a poor job of marketing and managing programs. Something must be done to help our private sector leverage its resources and increase competitiveness before we fall further behind other regions.

Many companies suggested ways to improve partnerships. The ideas most often mentioned include:

Let's all learn from successful partnerships. Acting on the above suggestions will improve communication between the parties but not how partnerships are developed, implemented and managed. The following 11 suggestions will help schools build better partnerships.

    1. Learn more about partnerships. Many school officials and faculty don't know the whys and hows of business partnerships, thus have little interest in them.

    2. Develop a shared vision. Colleges and universities are decentralized organizations so administrators and faculty must consciously work toward a common vision of business partnerships and their place in the institution.

    3. Centralize the contact point. The business community wants one place to call for information and help on business partnerships. Warning: This step should not be an afterthought or "add-on" to a current job description.

    4. Structure the office for success. The Office of Business Partnerships should report directly to the president or provost and work with all departments and faculty interested in partnerships.

    5. Hire or develop the right skill set. The director of Business Partnerships must be a team builder, possess business development and project management skills, and be able to communicate and work with two very different types of people: corporate executives and academics.

    6. Establish performance criteria. This applies to the position and each partnership. Incredulously, schools rarely evaluate partnerships.

    7. Identify core competencies before soliciting partnerships. Schools need to analyze what they do best before offering their services. This includes resisting,the temptation to enter a partnership simply because money is available.

    8. Solicit input from the private sector. This is the classic "ask the customer what they want" approach to product development. And once the lines of communication are opened, they must be continually used.

    9. Revise the incentive system. Many professors and administrators lack incentive to work with the business community, in fact, disincentives often exist. A balance must be struck on a discipline-by-discipline basis which rewards creativity and effort. This may mean hiring research professors to work solely on business partnerships and/or revising promotion criteria.

    10. Work with other area schools. Businesses know that strategic alliances leverage existing resources. It is time for higher education to learn and practice this strategy.

    11. Use existing public funds. A greater percentage of federal, state and local economic development funds should be channeled into business and higher education partnerships. Regions across the world use public funds to support partnerships so if we don't do the same, we lose competitive advantage.

The greater Washington area has an opportunity to become a dominant technology region but will come up short if business and higher education do not increase their interaction. We now know the problem and the solution. The challenge now is to find the leadership.

Patrick F. Valentine directed the research on business and higher education partnerships for the Northern Virginia Roundtable. He is managing partner of Colleges & Corporations LLC in Alexandria, Va., and is currently working with area faculty and business leaders on an executive education program for top management at technology companies.

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